Book Examines Connections Between Food, Culture and Psychology

Do you mash your potatoes or roast them? Prefer a martini or a rum and Coke? The answers to these and other questions about what you eat can tell researchers a lot about who you are.

This is just one of the findings by Leon Rappoport, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University. In his recent book, “How We Eat: Appetite, Culture and the Psychology of Food,” he addresses the way cultures define things as edible, food habits and ideologies, the origin of eating disorders, the relationship of food to sex and aggression, the future of marketing and the psychological implications behind these issues.

“Every aspect of eating behavior has both a social component and a psychological context,” Rappoport said. “The food we eat is defined by our social class and values.

“For example, the lower classes tend to prefer sweet drinks and foods, whereas the upper class prefers dry drinks and food items that tend to be bitter, astringent, or more complex flavors that you have to develop a taste for. It has to do with the self-discipline of food,” Rappoport explained.

This concept of self-control is also what links food to sex and aggression.

“Food and sex are both visceral appetites, and there’s the idea that these appetites and behaviors need to be socialized and controlled,” Rappoport says. “That’s why we teach children manners at an early age.”

As societies change, the foods that people eat and the body images they associate with status also evolve. Rappoport explains that in the 19th century, the working class typically performed physical labor, so the function of food was to fuel the body. Thus, a body we would now consider overweight was considered desirable because it was associated with prosperity, success and the sedentary lifestyle of the upper class.

“Today, however, it’s the opposite,” Rappoport says. “In modern society, food has taken on an aesthetic value, so the ability to eat delicately and remain as thin as possible is associated with status because those people don’t need food for fuel.”

However, the conflict between rationality and emotion that creates opposing forces in the dieting and food-advertising industries creates a similar psychological contrast in individuals, which brings other factors into an individual’s food choices.

“We’ve found that people make decisions about what they eat for one of three reasons: health, pleasure, or spirituality. However, people trade off these three ideologies and are very inconsistent. It’s common for people to choose healthy foods for breakfast, convenient foods for lunch, and then indulge in a luxurious meal in the evening,” Rappoport explained.

“People are very inconsistent, and it drives marketers crazy. The holy grail of food marketing is to come up with something that satisfies two of the three ideologies.”

Rappoport spent 10 years researching eating habits and decision-making behavior from historical, anthropological, cultural, biological and psychological perspectives before writing this book.

“I’ve found that people typically aren’t aware of the degree of cognitive and emotional aspects related to food,” Rappoport said. “This is psychologically significant because it suggests that from childhood and adolescence onwards, critical self-awareness about our food habits provides an essential foundation for the development of a deeply personal, intrinsic sense of creative autonomy.”

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